August 31, 2014
Grace and peace be with you this morning.
St. Paul has some funny advice for the new church in Rome, & for all of us: love one another, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering. Hold on there just minute! Be patient in suffering? Where does that come from? Why is that supposed to be a virtue? Ok maybe you don’t have any other choice but to be patient. Then he goes on with things that sound nice enough, like helping the saints, pray, extend hospitality to strangers; all fine if it doesn’t get too extreme. Then Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you.” Bless & do not curse them! What’s up with That? Sounds worse than being patient in suffering, if he is serious about wanting people to actually do it. And almost before we can scream in protest, Paul goes back to making sense and saying the sort of thing we expect: rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, live in harmony with each other, do not claim to be wiser than you are. So what is Paul trying to teach us about life?
I think the real genius of this passage does come in the parts that sound kind of crazy when you first hear it, the parts that redefine how we are supposed to respond or react when other people are apparently unfair to us. “Do not repay evil for evil.” Jesus gave plenty of examples of how we all are better off if we do not react according to the definition of Justice as being ” an eye for an eye.” Paul seems to think we humans are capable of living up to a more mature standard, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That lifts us up to a higher standard of how we should be reacting to people who are treating us unfairly, but the reason I really like this passage is not just because of what Paul says, but how he says it. Verse 20: if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” How cool! By doing the right thing, you can make your enemies really suffer! Now you’re talkin’ buddy!
But seriously, what are we to actually make of this?
Paul moves from telling the church in Rome how to be good citizens, to appealing to our desire for revenge! One verse earlier Paul is cautioning us against going to the dark side by seeking revenge, then he seems to say, “But if you are serious about really wanting to punish your enemy, then just give them what they need, feed them and give them something to drink, and then you heap burning coals on their head”.
Is Paul just being a good student of psychology, knowing that we are Much more likely to do what is good if we think we can get away with secretly being mean? Is this snarky comment designed to appeal to our baser nature? Perhaps! For when we are wrestling with a situation of trying to figure out what we really should do, but we are feeling hurt and angry, and we really want revenge, it is super hard to decide that forgiveness is the best response. It feels like forgiveness means condoning misbehavior, allowing someone to take advantage of you, & just setting yourself up to get walked-on again. Leaving vengeance up to God seems like it might take too long, or maybe God won’t remember to get around to smiting the evildoer! But give me an opportunity to heap burning coals on my enemy’s head, oh yeah, now you’ve got my attention! It takes us from doing what we are supposed to do, like eating vegetables, and makes it more like fun!
But what is really happening when we take St. Paul’s advice on this? One way to understand the wisdom of letting go of our anger and perceived need for revenge, is to look at the effect on ourselves. Even if we can feel that our hostility is eating us alive, it is still extremely difficult to “be the better person” and take the first step. Maybe if we can step back and consider that doing what is not expected by our adversaries just might confuse them, make them feel guilty, show them the error of their ways, we’ll, maybe then we can summon up the energy to change roles and walk away from actively seeking revenge. Or maybe this is something that happens to change both parties, Us and Them. When we change our behavior, they react differently too. Maybe by offering to provide for their needs, by giving them food and drink, we change from being competitors, to being the provider or the role model, and we start a new relationship by redefining our roles. There are many ways to understand the dynamics of what could happen, and I do think this is the foundation for how Non-violent resistance does have real power. Another way of describing how we are changed by refusing to engage in revenge, is the old expression, “living well is the best revenge” which does capture that sense of Romans 12.
Remember, Paul is not writing this to an individual, but to the church in Rome, and for that matter, to all of us today. It does work for each of us as individuals, but I think it also has an application for larger groups. One of the problems that we see in our culture is the tendency to lump people into two categories, which we call Us and Them. When we change the expected roles and refuse to demonize “Them”, but instead we reach out to feed and support them, the animosity can shrink amazingly quickly! Turning enemies into friends is one way to describe what the Kingdom of God is all about. This makes those difficult passages from Paul make sense. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them, not just to make them feel bad, but to transform a conflict into an opportunity to learn from another’s perspective. Not necessarily a quick solution, especially when dealing with very large groups, but the same dynamics that apply to individuals have been shown over and over to work to bring about lasting social change. There was a recent study of the long term result of revolutions over the past fifty years or so, comparing violent revolutions to nonviolent movements that toppled governments by changing the hearts and minds of the populace. Peaceful social change was clearly the most effective over time.
In both of the other two passages of scripture this morning, we read about God hearing the cries of oppressed people, and acting to disrupt the plans of empires. God is able to work through the people who seem to be powerless, and create hope and life where no one expected. While we are not enslaved by Pharaoh, we can become trapped by our desire for revenge, by our inability to forgive. While we are not threatened with crucifixion by the Roman Empire, Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the story in spite of what the agents of the emperor expected. On this Labor Day weekend, we may have an opportunity to practice our faith, discover power that we did not know existed, and work to bring about God’s kingdom through reaching out to help the oppressed in our culture. even if we don’t consider people to actually be our enemies, if we work to feed the hungry, clothe those in need, and help the incarcerated return to society with respect and hope, then we are helping to change our society. When we work across the lines of Labor and Management, farmers, business owners, professionals, and people looking for work, we help bring God’s love to light in our world. There was a story recently about how Robin Williams had a demand in every contract he signed to do a show or make a film, that the production company had to hire a number of unemployed, homeless people to help work on the set or stage; he couldn’t change everything, but he could make a difference to give people a chance to get back on their feet.
Maybe we do need a push, a little motivation to view things from God’s perspective and tear down the walls that create an Us against Them perception, so I think it’s OK for us to study what it would mean for each of us to really “Live Well”, and when we think about those who do not have our best interests at heart, to know that indeed, living well is the best revenge!
May God’s Grace and Peace surround you, and give you strength. Amen.